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How 'outcast' Cal Poly architecture students turned an old hotel into a quirky co-op home

The Ark was a building of cooperative apartments in the 1960s-1980s occupied by architecture students.
The Ark was a building of cooperative apartments in the 1960s-1980s occupied by architecture students.

The mural was a local landmark — a tugboat with a black captain at the helm and “Anarchy” written on the smokestack.

A fire escape door and platform were cleverly incorporated into the design.

The mural faced south toward Madonna Road; the building fronted Higuera Street in the spot now occupied by Jiffy Lube.

It was built as the Pacific Hotel and was the centerpiece of Nihonmachi or Japantown on Higuera Street in the 1930s.

Dan Krieger writes: "The Pacific Hotel (Pashifikkuhoteru) was built by a consortium that included Tameji Eto" about 1930. The Watanabe family had a nearby farm wholesale warehouse.

Eto was the subject of a front page Daily Telegram story on Nov. 3, 1930. The businessman was being honored for his contributions.

Evelyn Hansen wrote: “Mr. Eto is liked by all who know him. He is always ready to lend a helping hand to those in need and holds an enviable position in the hearts of San Luis Obispo county’s people."

The Japanese community was shattered when they were uprooted and forcibly removed to internment camps during World War II.

The building was sold to the Evans family, and in the 1960s it occupied a forgotten section of town with the freeway and creek on one side and a dilapidated and narrow Higuera Street on the other. The building was being used as storage when a group of students saw promise in the former hotel.

In a New York Times Magazine article from April 16, 2000, architect Leo Marmol recalled living there: "It was pretty much for the outcasts, a little wild, a little crazy but wonderful.”

His business partner, fellow architect Ron Radziner, said in a 2016 article for Palm Springs Style: “We lived together in a co-op in an old hotel, where we played around with the building, tampering with the structure, cutting skylights, stairwells, and doorways. We called it ‘the Ark.’”

1987 04-07 ark demolished2
The Ark was a building of cooperative apartments in the 1960s-80s occupied by architecture students and located near the corner of Higuera and Madonna. Residents modified the former hotel to add skylights. David Middlecamp

There were rumors of wild parties at the Ark, but when I visited a friend and his girlfriend who lived there in the early 1980s, it had low-key atmosphere with the smell of vegetarian cooking wafting out of the communal kitchen.

The Telegram-Tribune published this unbylined story April 8, 1987:

The Ark Sails On

The Ark, founded 20 years ago by Cal Poly architect students, was to fall victim this morning to the expansion of San Luis Obispo’s South Higuera Street.

The widening project is expected to take four to five months, said John Hawley, supervising civil engineer. The project will extend from about the 300 block of South Higuera to Madonna Road.

“Utilities will be placed underground, trees planted and new traffic signals installed,” Hawley said. The widening will occur on the west side of Higuera, he said. Bruce Trueman of San Luis Obispo was an Ark resident from 1970 to 1975.

“The Ark was started by 10 students in 1966, when they rented the building from the late Cecil Evans for $200 per month,” Trueman said.

“It had been used by a farmer for storage prior to that,” he said.

The building was remodeled with a new kitchen, carpets and drywall.

“We had foreign exchange students and visiting dignitaries stay there,” said Trueman, owner of Woodborne Corp.

George Hasslein, a Cal Poly professor and former dean, remembers the Ark “during the tenor of the times.”

“There was no co-education facilities here in those days, and we were concerned about some of the rumored activities going on at the Ark,” he said.

“I went down there and they patiently listened, I gave a lecture on morality, and protecting the reputation of the school.”

1987 04-07 ark destroyd
In the 1930s, the Ark building was the home of the Pacific Hotel in the centerpiece of Nihonmachi or Japantown. It was torn down in 1987 to make room for an expansion to Higuera Street. David Middlecamp
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